THE WAY INTO WORK

Ger­many’s ap­pren­tice­ship sys­tem is the envy of Europe. Here’s why

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Contents - TIM BOUQUET

Ger­many’s ap­pren­tice­ship sys­tem is the envy of Europe.

Not many 20 year olds would rel­ish get­ting up at 5.45am ev­ery day in or­der to ar­rive at work for a 7.30am start. And Priscilla Wol­bling ad­mits that she does cast en­vi­ous eyes at her stu­dent friends and the gen­tler hours they keep – “plus, of course, the long hol­i­days,” she says, smil­ing. How­ever, while Priscilla’s peers

may be study­ing – her brother and sis­ter are both at univer­sity – she has been both train­ing and earn­ing as a sec­ond-year ap­pren­tice at the mas­sive Mercedes-Benz plant at ­Sin­delfin­gen, near Stuttgart.

More like a small town than a fac­tory, this is Mercedes’s big­gest plant in Europe, em­ploy­ing 26,000 on its pro­duc­tion lines and 11,000 more in its R& D de­part­ment.

Work­ing along­side them are 850 ap­pren­tices, a fifth of them fe­male. Across Ger­many, Daim­ler AG (Mercedes-Benz’s par­ent group) em­ploys just under 6000 ap­pren­tices on 31 ap­pren­tice­ship pro­grammes, 20 fo­cus­ing on the com­plex tech­ni­cal skills re­quired in car and ve­hi­cle mak­ing and 11 ad­min­is­tra­tive ap­pren­tice­ships.

“I knew noth­ing about cars be­yond the fact that they have four wheels and a steering wheel,” says Priscilla, who is train­ing in car mecha­tronic sys­tems, the mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary fu­sion of me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer­ing, elec­tron­ics and com­puter sci­ence that fea­tures in to­day’s ve­hi­cles – and the ro­bots that in­creas­ingly make them.

“As far back as I can re­mem­ber, I was in­ter­ested in tech­ni­cal things,” she says. “A friend of mine was al­ready do­ing a mecha­tron­ics ­ap­pren­tice­ship here and he spoke very pos­i­tively about it. The chance to earn while train­ing in­stead of con­tin­u­ing school was also a big draw­card.”

So in the sum­mer of 2015, fol­low­ing an on­line test to as­sess her abil­ity in maths and sci­ence, Priscilla came to the Sin­delfin­gen plant for a “Let’s Benz” re­cruit­ing week.

“I took the ap­pli­ca­tion test, had an in­ter­view, met some ap­pren­tices and got to try some things out,” says Priscilla. “I re­ally liked what I saw and the fact that girls were be­ing trained, al­though hope­fully the num­ber will in­crease even more. A week later I was told I had been ac­cepted; I started that Septem­ber on a three-and-a-half year ap­pren­tice­ship.”

Also start­ing was 17- year- old Max Ehrlich, who is train­ing to be a con­struc­tion me­chanic. “We are in charge of all the body parts of the car,” he says. “I was al­ways in­ter­ested in cars, but I knew noth­ing about how they were phys­i­cally con­structed.”

LOOM­ING SKILLS SHORT­AGES

are driv­ing ap­pren­tice­ships to the top of the po­lit­i­cal agenda in Europe. “Forty per cent of Euro­pean em­ploy­ers re­port that they can­not find

More than half of young Ger­mans be­come ap­pren­tices when they leave full-time ed­u­ca­tion

peo­ple with the right skills to grow and in­no­vate,” re­ports the Euro­pean Al­liance for Ap­pren­tice­ships, which is ded­i­cated to strength­en­ing the qual­ity, sup­ply and im­age of ap­pren­tice­ships across Europe. And while 13 mil­lion peo­ple across Europe are in­volved in vo­ca­tional and ed­u­ca­tional train­ing (VET) pro­grammes lead­ing to a qual­i­fi­ca­tion, these of­ten in­volve lit­tle more than work­place vis­its for school pupils.

More than half of young Ger­mans be­come ap­pren­tices when they leave their full- time ed­u­ca­tion. What makes Ger­man ap­pren­tice­ships suc­cess­ful is that they are based on the con­cept of ‘dual train­ing’, whereby prac­tice and the­ory go hand in hand. The cur­ricu­lum fol­lowed by ap­pren­tices at school is re­lated to the par­tic­u­lar job they are be­ing trained for.

Never the­less, it is im­por tant that they have good com­mon knowl­edge as well, so sub­jects such as Ger­man, ethics and so­cial stud­ies are also taught.

As Thomas Fuhry, head of vo­ca­tional train­ing at the plant, ex­plains: “We hire our ap­pren­tices as em­ploy­ees – they start on just under €1000 [A$1500] a month – and we sup­ply all the hands-on prac­ti­cal train­ing and in­vest heav­ily in our fa­cil­i­ties and new tech­nolo­gies re­quired to train them. But our ap­pren­tices also spend time go­ing to a tech­ni­cal

school where they learn the the­ory be­hind the prac­tice. The Ger­man gov­ern­ment pays for that part of their ap­pren­tice­ship.”

All ma­jor Ger­man com­pa­nies, such as Bosch and Siemens, and many smaller ones, of­fer sim­i­lar dual train­ing, work­ing with gov­ern­ment, tech­ni­cal col­leges and cham­bers of commerce to tai­lor train­ing to fu­ture needs. In 2014 nearly 1.4 mil­lion young Ger­mans were in 350 dual ap­pren­tice­ship pro­grammes, which last two to three-and-a-half years with an aver­age grad­u­a­tion age of 22.

COULD THIS BE­COME THE MODEL

for the rest of Europe, where most coun­tries of­fer an of­ten-be­wil­der­ing patch­work of less-fo­cused train­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties? In the UK, where less than two per cent of 16 year olds be­come ap­pren­tices, the gov­ern­ment has pledged to hit a tar­get of three mil­lion ap­pren­tice­ships by 2020. But the in­de­pen­dent re­search body, the In­sti­tute for Fis­cal Stud­ies, has branded the ini­tia­tive’s fund­ing, based on an em­ploy­ers’ levy, as “poor value for money”.

In France, where youth un­em­ploy­ment is around 21 per cent and only about a quar­ter of young­sters take up ap­pren­tice­ships, the prob­lem is not so much the qual­ity of the teach­ing and work ex­pe­ri­ence. The ­ob­sta­cle re­mains tra­di­tional snob­bery to­wards vo­cat ional t rain­ing. The coun­try favours its Gran­des Ecoles, highly select ive and prest igious

higher ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tutes whose fo­cus is on cre­at­ing the coun­try’s elite. And the ever- chang­ing rules on ap­pren­tice­ships – which seem to al­ter faster than firms can fill in the forms – don’t help either.

Coun­tries with the most ef­fec­tive ap­pren­tice­ship sys­tems in place – Aus­tria, Switzer­land and the Nether­lands – have largely adopted the Ger­man model.

“The com­bi­na­tion of school­ing and prac­tic­ing and the chance to learn on the job is a foun­da­tion of Ger­man in­dus­try,” says Thomas Fuhry. “I think that this is the for­mula to suc­ceed.” In­deed, for­mer Ger­man Chan­cel­lor Ger­hard Schröder be­gan his ca­reer with an ap­pren­tice­ship in re­tail sales at a hard­ware store.

Da i ml e r and Mercedes-Benz have been of fer­ing sys­tem­atic on-the-job train­ing since 1916 – but ap­pren­tice­ships in Ger­many have their roots in the Mid­dle Ages, when craft guilds took on young peo­ple to learn skills from master crafts­men.

It is no co­in­ci­dence that mod­ern Ger­many has the low­est youth un­em­ploy­ment in Europe: a tiny six per cent against the EU aver­age of 15.3 per cent.

IN THE THIRD WEEK OF EV­ERY

month, Priscilla and Max at­tend the nearby Got­tlieb- Daim­ler School, named af­ter Daim­ler’s founder, to learn the the­ory they need to do their re­spec­tive jobs well.

The ap­pren­tices’ train­ing cen­tre at the main Sin­delfin­gen plant cov­ers two large floors. It is packed with Mercs up on ramps and on test beds and has ex­actly the same equip­ment the ap­pren­tices will use when they start work in the fac­tory, in­clud­ing the lat­est ro­bot­ics for assem­bly and paint f in­ishes, di­ag­nos­tic elec­tron­ics, and milling and stamp­ing ma­chines.

But be­fore they join the fast-chang­ing world of hy­brid cars and driver­less tech­nol­ogy, all ap­pren­tices, sport­ing their blue Mercedes over­alls, ­be­gin with the ba­sics.

“In my first year I learned how a four-stroke en­gine works by tak­ing it apart and putting it back to­gether in per­fect work­ing or­der,” Priscilla ex­plains. “Then we moved on to the electrics.”

In his area, Max be­gan with just a small as­pect of body con­struc­tion. “To teach ev­ery­thing about the car in one step would be too com­plex and cre­ate in­for­ma­tion over­load,” says

Coun­tries with the most ef­fec­tive ap­pren­tice schemes have largely adopted the Ger­man model

Joaquim San­tos, who com­pleted his own ap­pren­tice­ship at Daim­ler 34 years ago and is now re­spon­si­ble for in­ter­na­tional qual­i­fi­ca­tion and ­ap­pren­tice projects at Sin­delfin­gen.

“We start small and work un­til the ap­pren­tices have an in­ti­mate knowl­edge of the prod­ucts and pro­cesses. Peo­ple like Priscilla and Max, who come with lit­tle car knowl­edge but a desire to learn, make re­ally good ap­pren­tices. In my ex­pe­ri­ence, those who think they al­ready know ev­ery­thing about cars tend to fail the se­lec­tion test!”

Through­out their train­ing these young en­gi­neers are keenly aware that an ap­pren­tice scheme is not a dress re­hearsal for the world of work; rather, it is the first step in what Mercedes hopes will be a long ca­reer. And that first step gets in­creas­ingly tech­ni­cal. The ap­pren­tices now use 3D print­ing in the train­ing cen­tre’s Fu­ture Lab to make pro­to­type parts, just as they do in the plant’s Ad­vanced De­sign Cen­tre. A pro­to­type can be made in min­utes rather than days or weeks.

Max dons a RoboCop- style mask to do some vir­tual weld­ing on a com­puter screen. “Learn­ing to weld vir­tu­ally is not only safer, but very cost- ef fect ive be­cause you don’t waste ma­te­ri­als if you make a ­mis­take,” he says.

Even so, work­ing by hand is still a re­spected skill and high stan­dards are de­manded. Those ap­pren­tices spe­cial­is­ing in paint and coat­ing tech­nol­ogy know they will even­tu­ally be work­ing with ro­bot painters, but first they have to learn all the dif­fer­ent colour mixes and how to spray car bod­ies man­u­ally.

“My sec­ond- year prac­ti­cal ex­am­i­na­tion project is to make a tool that can be used in the pro­duc­tion line,” Max says. “It has to be pre­cise and work­ing per­fectly and I have six hours to do it.” ­Priscilla’s chal­lenge is to de­vise three dif­fer­ent di­ag­nos­tic tests for elec­tri­cal sys­tems and en­gine per­for­mance. Then there is a se­ries of writ­ten ex­ams. The com­pany’s his­tory is not for­got­ten. Among the shin­ing con­tem­po­rary mod­els is a work­ing replica of an 1886 Benz Pa­ten­tMo­tor­wa­gen, re­garded as the world’s first au­to­mo­bile, and one of sev­eral made by the ap­pren­tices.

“TO­DAY’S AP­PREN­TICES WILL

not be spend­ing their lives just mak­ing cars,” says Thomas Fuhry. “With all the ro­bot­ics and tech­nolo­gies at their

Ap­pren­tices who suc­cess­fully com­plete their Mercedes train­ing are of­fered a fulltime con­tract

dis­posal they will be first and fore­most prob­lem solvers and com­mu­ni­ca­tors.

“It is re­ally im­por­tant that they un­der­stand the con­cept of VUCA – the chal­lenges of volatil­ity, un­cer­tainty, com­plex­ity and am­bi­gu­ity – which we all face in the in­dus­trial, eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment. ­To­mor­row noth­ing will be as we ­ex­pect it to be to­day.”

So why do other coun­tries not fol­low the Ger­man model? Well, to some ex­tent they do be­cause Ger­man global com­pa­nies have plants around the world fol­low­ing the dual train­ing ap­proach. Daim­ler AG has just over 2000 ap­pren­tices around the world and runs school co­op­er­a­tion pro­grammes involving 4000 young peo­ple in China, In­dia and other coun­tries where it has a presence. Over­seas ap­pren­tices also of­ten visit the train­ing cen­tre at Sin­delfin­gen.

“Tra­di­tion­ally, Ger­man com­pa­nies in­vest in their fu­ture,” says Joaquim San­tos, who has run ap­pren­tice­ship schemes for Daim­ler in Brazil and the United States. “I think many coun­tries, such as Amer­ica, are ­fo­cus­ing on short-term so­lu­tions.”

MAX IS IN IT FOR THE LONG-TERM.

“When I fin­ish my ap­pren­tice­ship I want to go to univer­sity to study for a me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer­ing de­gree, ­be­fore com­ing back to Daim­ler.” This he can do with fi­nan­cial sup­port from the Daim­ler Aca­demic Pro­gramme. Priscilla says she might like to move into R&D.

Be­yond the early starts, eight-hour days and the de­mands of work and study, nei­ther Priscilla nor Max see a down­side to life as an ap­pren­tice. They are qui­etly con­fi­dent and, de­spite their youth, skilled time man­agers. Both love play­ing sport and hang­ing out with friends; Priscilla also vol­un­teers at her lo­cal fire de­part­ment.

All ap­pren­tices who suc­cess­fully com­plete their Mercedes train­ing are of­fered a con­tract. When asked what the dropout rate is, Thomas Fuhry looks per­plexed. “Why, it’s zero,” he says, break­ing into a smile.

Thomas Fuhry, head of vo­ca­tional train­ing, with ap­pren­tices Priscilla Wol­bling and Max Ehrlich

Vir­tual weld­ing forms part of Max Ehrlich’s train­ing

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